There may have been other occurrences of note dominating the news recently, but against the backdrop of political pundits arguing over the legacy of a dead prime minister and North Korea ramping up the rhetoric, it feels like the release of the 150th edition of the Wisden Almanack couldn’t have come at a better time.
You could argue it’s no longer as relevant as it once was, and its pulpit no longer so lofty; the Internet age and the shifting of the sport’s seat of power to the subcontinent means instead of the last word, it’s just another set of opinions.
But if history is, as Thomas Pynchon wrote, “a great disorderly tangle of lines”, for many Wisden represents a straight line through that tangle: the comfort blanket the cricket-lover can turn to when the hair shirt of current events gets a little too scratchy. While its unbroken 150-year run represents as much social history as sporting chronicle, that line of yellow-backed spines is as reassuring as a life-belt station at a storm-lashed beach. Even this year’s cover is reassuring, with the iconic Ravilious woodcut taking the place of the now customary photo (the photo will return next year).
Wisden didn’t mean all that much to me when I was younger. To a working class kid growing up on a Scottish council estate in the 80s, there were other things in life more important than cricket. Now, I can’t imagine my life without it. In his superb article for the Financial Times, Matthew Engel wrote that Wisden appeals to book-lovers first, cricket lovers second. This mirrors my own experience: even in times of great hardship, the one thing my parents never stinted on was books. The printed word was an escape as well as an education; a love that blossomed into a storage problem with a library now nearing critical mass (I gave up on shelves as a storage option years ago, and dare not even contemplate moving some piles lest they be load-bearing ones).
Since discovering my love for the game, I’ve made up for a cricket-less youth by reading everything I can get my hands on concerning the sport’s history. Of the so-far three-hundred-odd volumes on cricket heaped on random flat surfaces around my flat, Wisden comprises a yet-small but still-expanding segment, flashes of yellow strewn like a field of buttercups, keeping the winter’s gloom at bay.
I feel extremely honoured to have contributed to this 150th edition, with an article on blogs entitled “On the outside looking in”. And it pleases me immensely that long-form writing is back in fashion, with both the Almanack and its younger stable-mate, The Nightwatchman flying the flag for cricket writing of the highest quality. Not that this is solely the domain of paper and ink: in the age of instant news and 140-character opinions, it gave me great pleasure to highlight in my article blogs which tend towards a more in-depth consideration of their subject with writing that’s informed, intelligent and interesting. They include Reverse Sweeper, Freddie Wilde, and Donning the whites with grace and you should definitely check them out.
There will be those who will buy this year’s Almanack as an investment, or to turn straight to the bits that make headlines (the Notes by the Editor, the Five Cricketers of the Year, and the Leading Cricketer in the World) before setting it aside.
There will also be those for whom the arrival of a new Wisden means a double celebration, for those who love cricket and who love books, and for whom spring’s been too long in coming.
One of my most treasured possessions is another great time-machine of a book, a 1905 first edition of Beldam and Fry’s Great Batsmen: Their Methods at a Glance, with its wonderful, silver-gel photographs of Victor Trumper, Ranji, and “W.G”. It’s a book I dip into frequently, and it reminds me of the ways in which the sport has changed from then to now, and how many things have stayed just the same.
Now to find room for the 150th Wisden beside it.